Warsaw (Warszawa) has two enduring points of definition: the Wisa River, running south to north across the Mazovian plains, and the Berlin– Moscow road, stretching east to west. Such a location, and four hundred years of capital status, have ensured a history writ large with occupations and uprisings, intrigues and heroism. Its role has always been a key one, as a focus of popular and intellectual opposition and the site of past and future power, and today, as memories of communist Poland recede into the distance, the city is again pre-eminent economically, politically and culturally.
The extensive renovation and development that has come in tandem with Poland's 2004 accession to the European Union have left Warsaw looking better than at any time in the last sixty years – though all the same no one is likely to confuse it with Prague or Vienna: austere postwar planning left the city awash with concrete, and there's sometimes a hollowness to the faithful reconstructions of what was destroyed in the war. But a knowledge of Warsaw's rich and often tragic history can transform the city in the eye of the beholder, revealing voices from the past in even the plainest quarters: a pockmarked wall becomes a precious prewar relic, a housing estate the one-time centre of Europe's largest ghetto, the whole city a living book of modern history. The pace of social change is tangible and fascinating, and, in the city centre, you'll find a new generation of museums, restaurants and nightspots with genuine style.
Warsaw is much livelier and more cosmopolitan than it's often given credit for, and a constantly growing range of inviting bars, restaurants and clubs has appeared to cater for the new consumer classes. If prices are high by Polish standards they still compare favourably to those in Western Europe and Varsovians are generous and highly hospitable people. If you strike up a friendship here (and friendships in Warsaw are quickly formed) you'll find much to enrich your experience of the city.